Has Gamification Jumped the Shark?

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Badges, Points, and Leader-boards, oh my!

I’m working on a book – a series, actually – about gamifying learning, only lately, I’ve really been struggling with the term itself.


Hmmmm. It just doesn’t seem to fit anymore.

Is that because it is bullshit, as Ian Bogost said back in 2011?
Perhaps. At least, SOME parts of what most people identify as gamification are indeed B.S. And the suggestion that much of this is ‘exploitationware” is right on the mark.
The notion that we can “motivate” (read: DRIVE / FORCE) people to do things thanks to reward systems like PBL (points, badges, and leader-boards) is a very attractive one both in the corporate world and in formal education.

The more I think about it, the more I think that what I am doing in my classes deserves a label that is better than “gamification”.
What I am doing is so much MORE than “gamification”.
Like “Edutainment“, “Gamification” implies a superficiality that can’t be sustained.

In addition, I also want to distance what *I* am doing from what lots of others are doing in formal education.
I am indeed using elements and concepts that are common on games:

  • Choice: Multiple paths to the end.
    • There are very few hard deadlines.
    • There is more work that students *CAN* do than they *need* to do. In my current class, if someone did all of the assigned work and got a perfect score on everything, their score would be 1,276 (where 1,000 = 100%).
  • Cumulative: All scoring is cumulative. Students begin with a score of 0 and everything they do adds to their score. There is no compartmentalized scoring. All scores for all required work are simply summed.
  • Criterion: Nothing is scored relative to others in the class (i.e. none of that awful “grading on a curve”.) The standards for each task are described, and students are assessed on how close they come to the stated standard.
  • Competence: Almost all work can be resubmitted for re-assessment.
    • Students can keep trying until they get it right – or at least good enough.
    • They can also decide to give up on something, and do something else instead.

All of these things are common approaches in games, but they are ALSO common in apprenticeship learning, in the military (their promotion system also uses many of these approaches), in medicine (called credentialing there).

What I am doing is not completely novel, BUT, in formal education, what I am doing appears to be extremely rare.

With my approach, there are two basic strategies to earn an “A”. That part may in fact be novel, at least in higher ed. The first strategy is the traditional one: complete a few tasks, and earn a very high score on all of them. This is much like the usual 5 or 6 assignments, a midterm and a final exam. This is still extremely common in the sciences. The other approach is to complete many more tasks well enough. These kinds of students (the sloggers) almost never get A’s in our traditional model, but BOTH kinds of students are valuable. If I were looking to “staff up” for a major development project, I’d likely want a few of the first kind of student, but the bulk of my hires would be sloggers.

The more often I use this approach in my classes, the more convinced I have become that this should be the preferred approach in higher ed.

After running a variety of classes using this basic model I have realized that the implications of this approach are profound. Much of it has to do with risk – both real and perceived. When risk is reduced, engagement, creativity, satisfaction, retention, and many other elements are positively affected. Students try things they might otherwise not, because if their efforts miss the mark, they always have a way to recover. Students are mostly not willing to take risks doing things that are on the edges of their ability if the stakes for getting it wrong are too high.

So what should I call it?

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